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Penny-Wise, Fire-Foolish

March 08, 2004

Anti-tax mania continues to thrive in California, even at the cost of endangering lives and property. In San Diego County last Tuesday, voters rejected four of seven attempts to raise new funds for fire prevention and to beef up fire departments that were overwhelmed in the deadly wildfires of last fall.

The most astounding instance was in the city of San Diego itself, where voters rejected a proposed increase in the city's hotel room tax from 10.5% to 13% to provide an additional $8 million a year for the Fire Department, $3 million for police and $7 million for tourist programs and promotions. The measure got 61% of the vote, a landslide in most elections, but under the state Constitution, as amended by Proposition 13 in 1978 and Proposition 218 in 1996, any new tax or increase in an existing local tax must be approved by two-thirds of voters. Even so, most San Diegans would never have paid a penny of the hotel tax themselves. The proposed 13% levy would not have been uncommon; the hotel tax rates of Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York are higher.

Pending another possible vote in November, the San Diego Fire Department is begging for donations. Assistant Fire Chief Tracy Jarman said, "I know that's pitiful, but right now I'll do anything necessary to get the equipment we need."

It's more than pitiful. It's shameful. San Diego-area fire departments came under sharp criticism after the fires. A report last week said they suffered from poor communication, poor training and lack of coordination among agencies. Coordination would improve if there was a single countywide fire department, as in other major counties of Southern California. Much of the area that was burned or threatened last fall was rural country served by cheap but less-effective volunteer departments. The other three tax rejections were in such areas.

The fires burned hundreds of thousands of acres of brush and timber, killed 16 people and destroyed more than 3,200 structures. The Times' Tony Perry reported that in Boulevard, a community east of San Diego, a ballot statement opposing a $50-a-year parcel levy was representative of the anti-tax mood: "Taxes won't stop. Next year, another tax. Taxing will continue until they break you financially."

What can be done? The state could stop bleeding local governments every time money is short in Sacramento. The Legislature could approve a ballot initiative to lower the voting threshold to a simple majority on local taxes. Because money raised locally would be spent locally, such an initiative could face better odds than the measure regarding state taxes that failed last Tuesday.

In the meantime, folks in Boulevard can enjoy the extra $50 in their pockets. And they can be sure the fires will be back, no matter how many taxes they reject.

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